When Portland entered the playoffs, they were sitting in fifth place, just two wins away from missing the postseason altogether. After an incredible series of upsets, the Timbers fought their way to the Cup, only to lose to Atlanta United 2-0.
Hosted in Atlanta at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday night, the Cup match broke MLS attendance records, with 73,000 watching from the stands.
The match started as most finals do, both sides playing it safe, trying to figure out the rhythm of the night’s play.
Soon into the contest Atlanta United looked as if they were finding their confidence, pressing hard on Portland and controlling the middle of the pitch, an area of play Portland is known to dominate.
Portland continued to play it fairly safe, mostly sending long balls down the pitch, never sending large numbers on the immediate attack.
Awhile Atlanta looked the better team, neither really was breaking through and dominating the match entirely. An avoidable mistake by the Timbers cost them the even playing level.
With just six minutes to go in the first half, 21-year-old Portland striker Jeremy Ebobisse took a long first touch at the mid pitch that gave Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst the chance to stab the ball away from Ebobisse. Parkhurst’s jab at the ball was strong enough to send it straight to the top of the 18-yard-box, where Atlanta striker Josef Martínez received it. Quickly turning past defender Liam Ridgewell, Martínez was then one-on-one with Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella. Defenseless, Attinella came out only to have Martínez cut to the right of him, leaving a goal wide open for Martínez to tap the ball in with ease.
The first half ended with no other close chances for either side. At the start of the second half, Portland looked fresh and sharp, putting far more pressure on Atlanta than in the first. For a moment, it seemed Portland would be changing the momentum of the entire match.
Atlanta would end Portland’s chances of equalizing when Larrys Mabiala was called for fouling Martínez. This created a set piece for Atlanta in Portland’s final third.
Atlanta forward Miguel Almirón took the free kick, sending a curling free kick in between Portland’s 6-yard-box and penalty mark. The ball was first met by Martínez, who flicked it on with his head toward the back post, where Franco Escobar sprinted in to send the ball into the back of the net with his right foot just nine minutes into the half.
Although Portland did have a few chances throughout the final 30 minutes, their momentum was clearly halted following Atlanta’s second goal.
The match ended without much of a bang, giving Atlanta their 2-0 win, the first for a club who only entered the MLS in 2017.
After fighting to reach a place no one expected, Portland was certainly hoping to earn their second title in four years. Still, after a season filled with change, Portland has much to look forward to next year.
At the start of the 2018 season, Giovanni Savarese came to Portland to take over as manager. The move certainly took some time for adjustment, but has proved to advance Portland’s play. With most of their star veterans set to return, the club will be more unified than ever.
Until March and the new season comes around, Portland can hold their heads high, knowing that after an MLS Cup run, they still have room for improvement.